Inside Ecuador's battle against drug gangs
There’s been a major surge in gang violence in Ecuador, fueled by the transnational cocaine trade.
Now, Ecuador’s government is fighting back by sending in the military.
Today, On Point: How prison gangs and the transnational drug trade have plunged Ecuador into a state of emergency.
Thalie Ponce, journalist in Ecuador. Founder of Indómita Media. Collaborator with The New York Times.
Will Freeman, fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank.
Odalis Garcia, production assistant at TC Television in Ecuador.
Jordana Timerman, editor of Latin America Daily Briefing, a daily newsletter covering Latin American and the Caribbean.
Sebastian Urtado, president of Profitas, a political risk consultancy based in Quito, Ecuador.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: 22-year-old Odalis Garcia was on the second day of her new job at Ecuador station TC Television when, on January 9th, the unthinkable happened.
ODALIS GARCIA (SPANISH): Fue alrededor de las dos, dos y cinco de la tarde. Yo ya había terminado de enviar mis notas para para el noticiero de la tarde. De un momento al otro, escuchó gritos de una de mis compañeras que viene de afuera y dice, “Se metieron! Se metieron! Escondense!”
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: It was around 2, 2:05 in the afternoon. I had just finished sending my notes for the afternoon news. Suddenly I heard one of my colleagues yelling from outside, “They got in! They got in! Hide!”
CHAKRABARTI: Heavily armed men had broken into the TC Television’s headquarters in the coastal city of Guayaquil in the middle of a live news broadcast.
GARCIA (SPANISH): Estaba en shock. Escuché los disparos, los gritos. Pensé, “Donde me escondo? Que hago?
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: I was in shock. I heard shots, screams. And I thought “Where am I going to hide? What do I do?”
GARCIA (SPANISH): Atrás mi había una oficina, corrí y me metí debajo del escritorio, pero dejé encendida la luz y no cerré la puerta. Entonces yo dije miércoles, me van a encontrar.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: There was an office behind me so I ran and hid under the desk. But I left the light on and didn’t close the door. So I thought, “Shoot, they’re going to find me.”
CHAKRABARTI: Odalis crept to one of the office bathrooms, where she found two of her coworkers already hiding from the intruders. The men were pacing the hallways with their guns.
GARCIA (SPANISH): Se produce un ruido de desde donde estábamos y ellos dicen “Acá hay más! Acá hay más! Acá hay más!” Elegimos como que nos van a encontrar y tenemos que salir porque nuestro miedo era como estábamos escondidos en el baño, ellos disparaban a la puerta. Eso teníamos miedo. Entonces elegimos mejor salgamos. Salimos y ellos están afuera de la puerta al baño.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: There was a noise from where we were hiding and they said “There are more here! There are more here! There are more here!” We decided that they’re going to find us and we need to leave. Because our fear was that as we were hiding in the bathroom, they were going to shoot at the door. We were afraid of that and decided it was better to leave. So we left — and they were right outside the bathroom door.
CHAKRABARTI: One of the men grabbed Odalis by the collar the moment she stepped out of the bathroom. He pointed a gun at her. The men led her and her coworkers to a different room and forced them to kneel on the floor, the guns pointed at their heads. The attackers were also wearing explosives. That’s when she realized what could happen.
CHAKRABARTI: The attack at TC Television was being broadcast live across Ecuador. On air, viewers heard one of the attackers asking to be wired up with a microphone to send a message. He said he wanted to show the consequences of quote “messing with the mafias.”
Odalis says amid the chaos, a handful of men took her to a secluded booth.
GARCIA (SPANISH): Dos de ellos comienzan a tocarme a besarme en su desespero. Por ese punto. Yo solamente tenía miedo y estaba llorando y les decía en serio, hágame lo que quieran, pero no me maten.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Two of them started frantically touching me and kissing me. I was just so scared. And I was crying, and I told them, “Seriously do what you want to me but just don’t kill me.”
CHAKRABARTI: She was held hostage for about an hour. Finally, Odalis and her coworkers were rescued by the police. Thirteen men were detained and charged with terrorism.
The organized attack on TC Television is part of a wave of escalating violence in Ecuador. For decades, the country was among the least violent countries in Latin America. Now, it has the region’s fourth-highest homicide rate. That drastic change is driven by the combined forces of the nation’s powerful gangs, and the global drug trade.
Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, has called the gangs terrorists. The TV station raid was just one of a series of violent attacks in Ecuador. Noboa has declared a state of emergency.
Odalis Garcia, the TC Television production assistant, took some time away from the office. This week, she was able to go back to the office.
GARCIA (SPANISH): Cuando entré por los pasillos, me imaginaba todas las escenas. Y de hecho, cuando ya fue la hora en el que pasó todo, yo decía,“A esta hora fue cuando entraron ellos. A esta hora fue cuando pasó todo.” Entonces sí, sentía el hecho de la presión de que va a volver a pasar. Y escuchaba y me imaginaba como que los gritos, los disparos de aquel día.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: When I walked through the hallways, I saw all of the scenes. And when it was the time, when it all happened, I said, “This is what time it was when they got in. This is the time when it all happened.” I was feeling the weight of like this could happen again. And I listened and I could imagine the screams, the shots from that day.
CHAKRABARTI: There are now armed guards standing outside the station entrance. But Odalis still can’t shake the feeling that the attackers could come back.
GARCIA (SPANISH): Pueden haber miles de policías afuera, pero quién sabe si vienen mucho, o sea, si vienen más personas malas, pero el doble, o sea, es como que eso de ok está la policía, pero aún así no me siento segura.
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: There can be thousands of police outside, but who knows whether many – or whether more people will come, but twice as many. It’s like, okay, the police are here, but I still don’t feel safe.
CHAKRABARTI: Odalis’s vulnerability is real. President Noboa has ordered the military to “neutralize” 22 armed groups in Ecuador. Essentially a war against the gangs.
The gangs immediately took that war back to the Ecuadorian state. Just yesterday, Cesar Suarez was assassinated in Guayaquil. He was shot multiple times while driving to a court hearing. Suarez was the prosecutor investigating the attack on TC Television. Police have not yet determined who murdered him.
So what exactly is happening in Ecuador and why? Thalie Ponce is a journalist in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She’s also founder of Indómita Media. She collaborates frequently with the New York Times as well.
And she joins us. Thalie, welcome to On Point.
THALIE PONCE: Hi Meghna, I am glad to be here today to discuss this important topic. Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re in Guayaquil, you’re from there. This assassination happened just yesterday. Can you first describe how it feels to be in the city right now?
PONCE: Yeah, I think that being in Guayaquil since three years ago is very scary.
We all feel that we can be victims of anything, like anytime when we go out to the streets. When we lived what happened last week. In TC Television, I think that it was maybe a turning point because people were like very scared and 11 people died that day. Now we are somehow going back to normality in the streets, but it’s because we got used to like surviving.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, the shock of that television station attack, was that partly because it was so bold? Had the gangs done anything that bold before?
PONCE: Yeah, I think it was very bold. For me, for example, it impacted in two levels. Because one of my best friends, she was being held hostage, and seeing her that way, it was shocking, but also as a journalist, it hits different, because you know that you are being, you’re exposed with your work. And I think that we never imagined as citizens, that something like this could happen. Seeing armed men taking like a live broadcast, it was very different, and it’s the biggest channel in Ecuador. So it definitely sends a message.
CHAKRABARTI: How powerful are these armed groups, gangs or cartels in Ecuador?
I think that it can be answered with what happened last week, that actually unleash everything with what we are seeing, Ecuador’s attorney general, Diana Salazar, she exposed an investigation that have been held by her office. This is called a caso Metástasis. And it revealed narco corruption in the highest levels of the government, including judges, prosecutors, and other officials.
And this shows how gangs are corrupting everything in the system, and they have the power, not only in the streets, but also inside the jails that work as centers of operation for criminal gangs and organized crime.
CHAKRABARTI: And so then what happened? When this case was revealed, this kind of put a pressure on Noboa’s government that as we know is new. And he announced some changes that were going to take place.
These changes included transferring several powerful gang leaders to a Mexican moon security facility, but the plan was late. And then Adolfo Macias, that’s known as Fito, he’s the leader of a gang called Los Choneros, which is currently the most powerful gang in Ecuador. He went missing. He escaped from prison.
And then another kingpin, Fabricio Colón Pico, from the gang Los Lobos, escaped too, just three days after being captured.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s focus on Macias or quote unquote Fito, as he’s known as you said. The transfer to a high security facility was done for the reasons you said, but I want to talk about where he was being transferred from. Because it doesn’t seem at all like the prison, he was in was a prison for him, right?
He was running the cartel’s business from there.
PONCE: Yeah, of course. He was held in Litoral Penitentiary. It’s the biggest jail in here in Ecuador, but it’s not a maximum-security facility. And he was the lord there. Some inmates have talked to the press, and they have tell us that inside the jail, for example, he had a luxury, for example, luxurious mattress and a refrigerator and every kind of facilities, and he was living like a lord inside the jail.
CHAKRABARTI: I see that he also had a pool constructed at that prison, his girlfriend came for a week. And he was in such control of the prison that at one time he even had, he welcomed cameras in and was featured in a professional music video from prison. Did the Ecuadorian law enforcement there have any control over the facility or was it essentially run by Macias and his fellow gang members?
PONCE: Yeah, I think that this, all of this that you’ve said shows that effectively, there’s no law for us inside the jails. There’s in theory, we have a service that supposedly controls the penitentiary system, but in the reality, it doesn’t happen. We’ve seen that each jail has a different kingpin or leader.
And inside the jails, also the wings have like different leaderships of different gangs.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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